Spotlight On: Lymphatic System and Lymphedema

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The cardiovascular system includes the heart, arteries and capillaries that transport blood, oxygen, nutrients and water across our bodies. Veins also collect blood, while something called the lymphatic system collects a fluid called lymph. Lymph contains byproducts from our metabolism and immune factors to maintain our health.

Cardiovascular health is central to our everyday health—every part of our bodies rely on the cardiovascular system. Unfortunately, there are many cardiovascular conditions that don’t have a cure. One example is lymphedema, an accumulation of fluid that can occur in the body’s tissues when the lymphatics system doesn’t transport the fluid around the body as it should.

Lymph (Latin for “water”) includes compounds unique to each organ and immune factors, such as cells and proteins that respond to an infection. Lymphatics have also been shown to be involved with disease processes such how cancer cells spread throughout the body.

Lymphedema can affect people of any race and/or ethnicity, though those with obesity have the highest risk. Environmental causes such as radiation therapy can also lead to lymphedema, which affects millions of people worldwide, but has no cure. However, imaging tests such as MRI, CT scan or lymphography (watching how radioactive dye moves through the lymph vessels) can be used to help diagnose lymphedema.

People at risk of developing lymphedema may develop two types:

  • Primary: genetic lymphatic disease, which causes lymphatic malformations
  • Secondary: lymphatic disease caused from surgery, trauma, radiation therapy or infection.

Symptoms of lymphedema include excess swelling and inflammation, most often in the arms and legs. The dangers of lymphedema include loss of mobility and impaired limb movement, increased risk of immune conditions and lifelong discomfort.

People with lymphedema often need to make lifestyle modifications to prevent their condition from worsening. This can include quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising and following a healthier diet without alcohol or caffeine. Specialized lymphedema therapists can also show people with lymphedema techniques and equipment to help reduce lymphedema swelling. This may include manual lymph drainage, wearing compression bandages and garments, and/or using sequential pneumatic compression devices—sleeves worn over the affected limbs that inflate and deflate to help excess fluid drain and prevent blood clots.

One of the main points to remember about lymphedema is that it is manageable. Taking steps to prevent symptoms from getting worse can improve your overall health and way of life.

Anand “Sunny” Narayanan, PhD, is a research professor at Florida State University. As a first-generation immigrant Indian American, Narayanan has held a lifelong interest in encouraging diversity through educational outreach and interdisciplinary projects. His research includes studying the gastrointestinal system in various contexts, including spaceflight, medical conditions, dietary adaptations, public health and exercise.

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